The British Science Fiction Association listed the first of these stories, ‘The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule’ as one of the top ten genre novellas. It’s certainly worthy of the accolade, as the story redefines the fantasy genre with an extraordinary milieu and a dark, wholly human twist.
This dragon is not the usual fire breathing menace; he has been paralysed in an ancient duel with a wizard and is now partially buried, his mile-long body forming part of the landscape as his unknowable will exerts its ambiguous influence over the surrounding countryside. The amazing physical details of the dragon are offset by the calm, scientific precision of their depiction: the vast, unmoving bulk lies unchanging as its human surroundings age and alter.
Since all conventional military attempts to destroy Griaule have failed, the job falls to the creative sector. An artist from outside town decides to paint a mural on the side of the dragon using paints containing lead and other chemicals that will slowly poison him. However, is this plan part of Griaule’s overall design?
Beneath the tale of the mural is the story of the artist’s relationship with two women: his original guide and the wife of one of the foremen running the huge industrial operation creating the artwork. This small and movingly believable drama is played out over many years; the artist arrives as a youth and is a lonely old man when the job is complete. As in a lot of the best fantasy, this sense of the epic is almost a character in itself.
Likewise, in ‘The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter’, the heroine begins as a lovely but callow young woman who is chased into the dragon’s body. Again, this situation may have been brought about by the dragon, a theory that gains traction when the girl encounters the strange inhabitants of the visceral inner world who see her as a messiah. Years pass and the girl discovers extraordinary resources both within the dragon and within herself. She gazes at the beast’s huge immobile heart, seeking meaning in its impenetrable patterns. She carries out endless research in Griaule’s passages and vaults. She has a doomed relationship with a man who is similarly trapped, but who the dragon may have brought inside to keep his captive company. All along, the girl ponders the reason for her presence here; why is she being protected and from what? Such is the wonder of this situation and the skill of the writer that claustrophobia only hits with hindsight.
As in all the stories, the female character is strong and complex, while the male figures are restless, almost amoral; even the original wizard faltered at the crucial moment. However, they are redeemed by an overarching sense of decency or determination and it’s easy to imagine these characters being self-portraits of the author.
Such is the richness of the Griaule concept that different story forms can be used to explore it. ‘The Father of Stones’ is a murder mystery, with the detective character a young lawyer who is defending the accused. Father/daughter relationships, or versions of them, underpin the narratives and here the motivation of the murderer is to save his fractious but desirable offspring from the head priest of a cult that worships Griaule. That the girl was a willing participant in the eroticised rites her father ‘saved’ her from renders the case that much harder to make.
The lawyer falls under the young woman’s spell and, by implication, that of Griaule. In the first two stories, the dragon’s will is ineffable, as hard to define as a deity’s; by the entirely unexpected conclusion of this story Griaule’s intentions are clearer and the characters worse off for it. Interestingly, the protagonist of ‘The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter’ appears as an expert witness; one of a number of devices linking the stories to give this collection the feel of a novel.
‘Liar’s House’ starts with the least sympathetic of the protagonists; a brutish murderer who lives in the lawless city next to the dragon because that is the only place the forces of justice will not venture. In the first two stories the area around Griaule feels like a 19th century rustic landscape imagined by one of the Dutch Masters recovering from an acid trip; here it gives way to something more desperate, dark and creepingly modern.
In the most intrusive example of Griaule’s influence, another dragon appears, this one mobile. She transmutes into a woman and in doing so brings about profound change in the protagonist. As the dragon becomes more human, so too does the man; to the extent that we yearn for an alternative to the inevitable tragic but ambiguous ending.
In ‘The Taborin Scale’ a coin collector and a prostitute are transported to a harsh, primal landscape that turns out to be the valley of Griaule before the dragon’s incarceration. They are harried by a youthful version of Griaule towards a mysterious destination and the climax we’ve been waiting for, although as always with Griaule it turns out to be somewhat different than expected.
The man and woman go from interestingly dislikeable to wholly sympathetic as they traverse the prehistoric terrain while trying to negotiate a commercial relationship that retains little meaning other than being the only one they have. Meanwhile, a father/daughter relationship develops between the man and an abused girl the couple rescue, and such is his desire to protect her that he almost loses his mind. These sequences are, for me, the most powerful in the whole collection. They are not only emotionally honest but also psychologically accurate, despite taking place on the outer limits of obsessive neurosis.
That the relationship between the man and woman is doomed calls to mind the affair between the artist and the foreman’s wife in the first story; in both cases there is the sense that Griaule himself has forced the parting for his own reasons. Shepard uses a clever device to emphasise this distance; an account written at the end of the story by the woman of her years after she and the man part. At one point she meets them again and her description of them is unnerving. We sense that the man and the girl have become so changed by their encounter with Griaule that they are no longer the same people at all, and are perhaps no longer even fully human.
Like an earthbound Moby Dick, Griaule embodies many possible meanings. As well as the neurosis described in ‘The Taborin Scale’, Griaule is a great metaphor for depression, both psychological and political. Shepard himself suggested that the dragon could represent the Ronald Raegan administration, in power when the first story was written in 1984. Certainly, that sensibility extends to ‘The Skull’, a contemporary tale set in Shepard’s beloved South America against a backdrop of narco politics and depressingly familiar right-wing political thuggery.
A young American drifter arrives in town and bases himself in a gay bar, which despite its target clientele is frequented by the wealthy but sexually frustrated wives of ranking militiamen. These women soon become a source of both distraction and income, but the young man’s interest is piqued by a striking girl whose influence seems out of all proportion to her youth. She turns out to be the leader of a cult that worships a giant skull; some say it once belonged to a dragon but that’s just a fairy tale. Isn’t it?
By this time, Shepard had been writing about Griaule on and off for thirty years and such is the author’s confidence with his material that he suggests events in the previous stories may not even have happened. Sure enough though, the nasty old beast makes his presence known, first through the skull itself, then via the cult whose members mysteriously vanish and finally in the person of the leader of the militia, whose sinister intent is filtered through a disarmingly chatty charisma.
There are hints of the father/daughter dynamic as the drifter finds himself increasingly obsessed with saving the girl. However, in the same way the drifter is no Saint George, so the girl is no helpless princess. Her complexity, drive and intelligence make her the ideal vessel for the dragon’s vicious intentions. The girl is the only one who can perceive the dragon’s influence directly, via the sounding chamber of the giant skull. This chamber could be the one discovered by the Scalehunter’s Daughter, in which new versions of herself are created. The facility echoes Griaule’s inventive means of resurrecting his former glory, which find a suitably bizarre expression that is foreshadowed with strange hints that charge the narrative with the feel of a supernatural thriller.
Lucius Shepard is a great writer. His grasp of mythology is so assured he can make it do what he wants and still have it feel timeless. The many styles of narrative so skilfully employed in this collection are underscored with a kind of righteous but mournful anger that lend Shepard’s language the resonance of poetry. If you read any of these stories not only will you not be able put it down, you will want to read them all.